I thought that I could read music. I took piano lessons for years as a child from an old woman, Viola Hicks, who drove around to the scattered farm houses and gave half hour lessons for one dollar a session. And I did learn to play. I can pound out a ragtime tune from Scott Joplin, play a little Bach and Grieg, make my way presentably through a church hymnal, and pretty much play any piece of popular sheet music that you put in front of me.
I can sing, too, either the tune or in harmony.
But, it turns out, I don’t know what I’m doing. Point to a particular note on the page and I have to work out what it is. It’ll take me several seconds to answer. Ask me what chord I’m playing and I just don’t know. What key am I playing in? God help me, I’m not that smart.
I see the dots on the page and I know what keys to press down. I have raw musical talent, a good ear, but no comprehension of music theory.
I found this out in complete clarity the other day as I was learning to play my new ukulele. I am doing really well learning to play the chords, but the moment that I attempted playing individual notes I slammed right into the wall of comprehension. Play an A? What’s that?
It is immensely frustrating and frightening. I thought that I knew this stuff. What I can do is really remarkable. I’m more like a computer reading assembly code. I see the dots and my hands press down the right keys. My ear notes when I press the wrong key and I quickly correct. So yes, I can read music, but I don’t really understand it the way I thought I did.
And so, when I’m nearly 54, I’m setting out to really learn to read music. Gods above, it’s hard!
And it’s really, really satisfying.
I am betting there are more of these things hiding in my head. Things that I think that I know, but of which I only skim the surface. I’ll see if I can manage learning to really read music before seeking out more things that I should know, but don’t.
What do you think that you know? Are you sure? Might be time to test yourself and see if you are doing more than seeing the dots and pressing the keys. Once you uncover one of these frustrating oversights you have a chance to do something about it, to learn something new, and, possibly, to get much better at something you value.
This reinforces a maxim that I’ve stated before: most of what we think we know is wrong. The degree to which we’re willing to test what we know, to learn, to become a little less wrong, determines how far we can go in any given area.
I’m playing painfully slow scales, but I’m learning. I can’t kid myself any more.